In August 2012 I became one of many backers (63,416 to be exact) of the Ouya project on Kickstarter – a hugely successful fund raising project to build and ship an affordable Android based game console for the living room. In fact it was so successful they raised >$8m via Kickstarter and went on to raise another $15m in VC funding. I signed up, paid my $99 (plus some additional costs for delivery to Europe) on the promise of a console and one controller if/when they managed to build it. That day came yesterday – my Ouya arrived on my doorstep in Dublin, Ireland and after my very kind wife handed over an additional EUR20 to DHL for the customs fees, it was officially mine. Not sure how many others arrived in Ireland yesterday (May 27th 2013 – you can let me know in the comments) but I like to think that I was one of the first to get one here. The following are my high level thoughts on the unboxing and first impressions of the hardware and software. Note this is not an in-depth review – I’ll leave that to the experts – but hopefully a useful post on the first impressions from an end user.
This is no Apple product but then this cost just $99 and the packaging reflects this. It reminded me very much of the style and quality of packaging that my Google Nexus 10 came in – matt black cardboard. Functional, reasonable quality – gets the job done. I liked the ‘Thank you for believing’ sticker in the box – a nice touch.
The console and the controller are very nicely built. They feels like a solid, expensive product. Nothing flimsy or cheap about it at all. There was some protective film around the polished plastic bits to avoid scratching during transit, the parts were all packed nice and securely and it arrived in perfect condition all the way from Hong Kong. Very nicely done.
What’s in the box
This I was impressed and pleasantly surprised by. Along with the console and controller there is a manual, the power adapter, two AA batteries for the controller (Duracell – not some cheap and nasty brand you often get with big brand electronics like remote controls), and a HDMI cable (often excluded when buying other consoles and peripherals). In other words, other than your TV and a WiFi internet connection, everything you need to get started – no messing around looking for batteries or cables. My first puzzle was to figure out where to put those nice Duracell batteries. There is no obvious battery compartment in the controller – the type you usually find on the back of a remote control with the little pull-tab. After some head-scratching and unsuccessful references to the manual in my typical RTFM fashion, I figured it out – the two front faceplates of the controller detach to reveal battery compartments. Not very obvious, but nicely designed and engineered and when you think about it, the perfect place to put batteries in order to help them balance the overall feel of the controller. Nice work here, but a reference to this in the manual would help for those a little slow like me! Overall, a great package.
On the subject of the manual, it’s got to be about 30 pages long. However all but one of those pages is made up of technical and legal mumbo jumbo. There is one page of instructions which are very high level and unspecific. Other than the battery challenge this was ok for me, but when it comes to selling this console via retail channels I expect Ouya will need to provide a lot more detail on the setup process. Work to do here.
So now it was time to get this puppy fired up and see what it could do. Plug in the power, HDMI cable and power up both the console and the controller and we were away. First impressions – this software is nicely designed and I get an encouraging ‘OUYA’ tone as the machine boots up (in no time). Next was pairing the controller to the console which worked first time, and it was then down to joining my WiFi network. Here’s where things slowed down a little. Figuring out how to use CAPS, go forward and back through the input boxes and submit took a little time – probably no more or less than any console but I came across a few little usability bugs at this stage which also slowed me down. Ultimately I gave up on the WiFi connection and connected an Ethernet cable to the back of the console and went with the wired option. This was more down to my impatience than anything but there are a few little bugs to fix here. Once connected to the internet the console looked for updates, downloaded, rebooted and installed them with some cute progress messages as it went – took about 3 or 4 minutes in total. We were then ready to login.
When prompted to login I realised I had forgotten my username and password to referred back to my email to dig out my username and guessed my password. I eventually got logged in, but again I feel that this is where some people will need more help from the manual. Once logged in I was in what was clearly the main menu with options for Play, Discover, Make and Manage. Of course all I wanted to do at this stage was Play, so I went there to find nothing – no preloaded games or content. That led me to Discover where the options were a little less clear in Check It, Staff Picks, Fresh, Favs, Genres and Sandbox. Some games appeared in a series of thumbnail images to the right but after some clicking in and out of different menu options, they became blank thumbnails (another bug) which later returned to being images. I downloaded a few games and tried them out.
The Download, Install and Play process
To download a game you Discover it, download it (this can happen in the background though I encountered more weirdness when downloading multiple games at the same time) and you must then install it separately through the Play menu where the game will automatically now be listed. This is a little clunky since as users intention in downloading a game is surely to also install it, so would be good to see these steps combined into one in the future. For now, both need to be done but it’s a straightforward process and only takes a few minutes to get playing a game. I only tried free games – I noticed an area to enter credit card details and I wasn’t going there!
The gameplay experience
One of the games I downloaded was Flashout 3D – a Wipeout clone widely available on iOS and Android. The gameplay and smoothness was great and reminded me of the original Playstation Wipeout title. The graphics are obviously not up to PS3 / XBox standard, but again we’re talking about what is effectively a $99 Android phone connected to your TV here. Overall a fun and smooth gameplay experience. There aren’t a lot of titles available today so looking forward to seeing this build out over time.
The controller is a critical part of any game console, and Ouya have done a pretty good job here. Its connected wirelessly over Bluetooth and this pairing process works simply and … well … ‘just works’. The balance and comfort of the controller in the hand is bang-on. The analog joysticks and buttons are well positioned and have a good feel to them as you play. The shoulder buttons work but don’t have that same quality feel to them – they have a glossy finish to them, feel light and protrude from the controller which overall impacts the quality. The ‘D-Pad’ feels a little ‘sticky’ but since I won’t be using this much I’m not too bothered. In summary a strong controller with a few little niggles.
I’ve cast a very critical eye over this product and there are some minor flaws in both the hardware and the software here. I expect the software to improve quickly over time, and no doubt the hardware will come in refreshed formats also but in the end I keep coming back to the fast that this is a $100 v1 Android based living room console, and for that it’s hard to fault. It’s a very well designed, quickly developed and FUN device that I would recommend any console fan or games enthusiast considers purchasing. Clearly this is not a comprehensive review and summarised my main thoughts having spent a total of one hour setting up and playing my Ouya, but hopefully it’s of use to those considering buying one. Would love to get your thoughts and feedback in the comments.